What are some good books about life in captivity?
February 7, 2008 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me find literature written about life in prisons, work camps, concentration camps etc.

Can you guys please suggest some interesting works of fiction or nonfiction focusing mostly on life in prisons, prison camps, concentration camps, DP camps, refugee camps or any similar settings. Stories that take place in war ravaged occupied areas also fit the bill, think postwar Berlin etc. I'm finding myself very interested in this sort of thing recently.

I'm particularly interested in how people survive these situations. Profiles of people who managed to make it to the top of the ad hoc hierarchies of camp life are especially interesting to me. I'm also deeply interested in the bartering and general economies of camp life.

In no particular order, here are some works that I have read and either enjoyed have been deeply affected by:

King Rat by James Clavell. Historical Fiction. Story about life in Japanese-run POW camp in South East Asia. Profiles one low ranking American soldier who claws his way to the top.

Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard Semi autobiographical. Recounts the experiences of a wealthy British child living in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. Reveals lots deal making and bartering.

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. Autobiographical memoir about life in Auschwitz. Extremely honest, shows competition between prisoners.

Night by Elie Wiesel. Holocaust memoir. Perhaps more inspiring than many of the Holocaust memoirs.

The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz. Has less emphasis on prison/camp life than other listed books, but does profile survivors of the camps and how they lived.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Fiction but semi autobiographical. Account of life in Stalinist prison camp.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski. Collection memories about concentration camp life.

Maus by Art Speigelman. Graphic Novel. Extremely powerful for a graphic novel. Depicts and contrasts the behavior of the author's father during and after life in a concentration camp.

If anyone could suggest more works in this vein, I'd really appreciate this. Bonus for providing a brief synopsis. Double bonus if you can provided some varied time periods/locations of such life.

posted by Telf to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Not a book, but did you see this link from MetaFilter on Tuesday?
posted by that girl at 3:05 PM on February 7, 2008

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the novella on which the movie was based.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:06 PM on February 7, 2008

Response by poster: Forgot to list Papillon by Henri Charriere. Supposedly autobiographical account of prisoner held in French prison in South America. Plenty of detail regarding day to day life and eventual escape.
posted by Telf at 3:07 PM on February 7, 2008

Also Moments of Reprieve by Levi.

"They are the moments that helped him overcome his circumstances, either physically (through actual salvation from death, or helping him avoid it, e.g. by obtaining extra food) or more spiritually, through human interaction restoring his faith in his fellow man."
posted by nitsuj at 3:07 PM on February 7, 2008

Have you read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago?
posted by scody at 3:07 PM on February 7, 2008

Also, a book: When the Emperor was Divine. About US internment camps for Japanese.
posted by that girl at 3:07 PM on February 7, 2008

In the Belly of the Beast.
posted by rtha at 3:17 PM on February 7, 2008

Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago also treats his time in a gulag.

Kantor's Andersonville is about, well, Andersonville the POW camp during the Civil War. It shows life in the camp through the eyes of several different people.

Memoir of Hungary, 1944-1948, by Sandor Marai. Memoir of life in Hungary between the end of WWII and the solidification of Soviet power in Hungary.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 3:20 PM on February 7, 2008

Protective Pairing for Punks.
posted by nicwolff at 3:24 PM on February 7, 2008

Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
posted by thinman at 3:26 PM on February 7, 2008

Erwin James wrote a fairly long running series of columns in The Guardian about being a 'lifer' in British prisons up to and slightly beyond the end of his sentence. They were later published in two books A Life Inside: A Prisoner's Notebook and The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:27 PM on February 7, 2008

Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead is excellent. It's based on his own experiences in a Siberian prison camp.

If your interest turn theoretical, Erving Goffman's Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates is a classic study of "total institutions" and the way they operate. Academic but very readable.
posted by otio at 3:34 PM on February 7, 2008

All about the USSR Gulag camps and in addition to the Solzhenitsyn's mentioned above.

Man is wolf to Man

Kolyma Tales

A world Apart

and almost as a synopsis...
posted by selton at 3:49 PM on February 7, 2008

Bad Girl, by Abigail Vona (though there was some controversy about that), is about her time spent confined against her will in teen rehab.

Julia Scheeres' Jesus Land is largely about time spent in a Christian reform school.

Jack Gantos' Hole in My Life is largely about his time in prison.
posted by box at 3:50 PM on February 7, 2008

Aquariums of Pyongyang, about life in a North Korean gulag.

Was also going to mention Man's Search for Meaning.
posted by ibmcginty at 3:52 PM on February 7, 2008

For ease of reading and anthropomorphic characterizations of races [while still being touching and informative], try Maus.
posted by Acari at 4:04 PM on February 7, 2008

Dammit dammit dammit.
I could have sworn I read your whole question twice!

posted by Acari at 4:05 PM on February 7, 2008

I highly recommend Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog.
posted by peep at 4:07 PM on February 7, 2008

I'd offer up " One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I know he's been suggested already, but I found this "snapshot" of Ivan Denisovich's experience truly chilling, in both its frankness and lack of emotion. One part that really stays with me is when the prisoners of the gulag, though already starving, stuff bread in their ears at night because the sounds of other prisoners suffering is too much to bear.
posted by Detuned Radio at 4:13 PM on February 7, 2008

Prisoner's Inventions. There's also a website.
posted by hydrophonic at 4:16 PM on February 7, 2008

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. The first half of the book is about her and her family's efforts to hide Jewish people in Holland, but she and her elderly father and sister were taken to the concentration camps. Very moving and completely true. Note: their family were all devout Catholics so faith does come up alot in the book.
posted by chihiro at 4:30 PM on February 7, 2008

Go Boy!, by Roger Caron, is a fantastic prison memoir.

LibraryThing: imprisonment, prison, political prisoner.

Darkness at Noon, of course.

Prisoner without a name, cell without a number.

Also, prior post on the blue
posted by Rumple at 4:32 PM on February 7, 2008

Also: wikpedia, political prisoner memoirs

Prison literature in the United States

Memoirs of an Anarchist
After the Madness (memoirs of a judge who ends up in prison)
posted by Rumple at 4:44 PM on February 7, 2008

One more! this list might have some good leads.
posted by Rumple at 4:46 PM on February 7, 2008

Several of Jean Genet's novels might (technically) fit the bill.
posted by dilettante at 5:40 PM on February 7, 2008

How about a tale told from the other side of the bars: Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing which features a journalist getting a job at the infamous Sing Sing prison and documenting his one year stint there.
posted by mmascolino at 5:42 PM on February 7, 2008

On the Yard - the only prison book you can give your aunt. We are All Doing Time is a spiritual workbook for prisoners published by the fine folks who bring us the prison ashram project:
posted by shothotbot at 6:16 PM on February 7, 2008

Kind of a different sort of thing, but Plowing the Dark by Richard Powers.
posted by dmd at 6:40 PM on February 7, 2008

Camp Concentration
posted by brundlefly at 7:04 PM on February 7, 2008

well, as for the effects of persisting in a prison camp, i might suggest a look at the tractatus logico philosophicus, written by Ludwig Wittgenstein whilst soldiering in the trenches of WWI as well as time in a prisoner-of-war camp.

for the backstory on this amazing text, you might start with Ray Monk's Ludwig Wittgenstein, the duty of genius
posted by garfy3 at 7:25 PM on February 7, 2008

I recently read "The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp" by R. A. Radford, published in 1945, and it's a rather interesting article.
posted by dreamyshade at 8:38 PM on February 7, 2008

From the ingenious scrounging Allied POW genre:

The Great Escape, Paul Brickhill
The Wooden Horse - where POWs use a wooden vaulting horse and practice held inder the eyes of Nazi guards to din an escape tunne.
posted by sacre_bleu at 7:30 AM on February 8, 2008

My grandfather, grandmother, and their children were held under house arrest in the Second Sino-Japanese War; they were over there as medical missionaries. She wrote about it in one of her books, The Chinese Ginger Jars, which entered the public domain and so is now housed on the Internet Archive. It's not precisely responsive to your question, but it may be in the general ballpark.
posted by WCityMike at 11:02 AM on February 8, 2008

My Happy Days In Hell by Gy├Ârgy Faludy - autobiographical novel based on Author's time in Hungarian labour camp. Great title. On my to re-read list.
posted by Catch at 6:46 PM on February 8, 2008

I recently took a class on Holocaust Literature and one of the best things I read was Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger. I highly recommend it.
posted by nuclear_soup at 7:04 AM on February 9, 2008

This was my undergrad advisor's topic: captivity narratives. And this is her book: Captured: The Japanese Internment of American Civilians in the Philippines, 1941-1945.
posted by librarina at 7:58 PM on February 10, 2008

On the Yard by Malcolm Braley is one of the classics of the genre. Great book, written while Braley was in prison. Inter-prisoner relations, hierarchies, etc.
posted by fidelity at 6:49 AM on February 12, 2008

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